The Power of Difference

By Susan J. Ellis

There’s a popular television show called Numb3rs right now.  It revolves around two brothers, the older of whom is an FBI agent.  The younger brother, who was a child genius, is now a university professor of mathematics.  They’re both sexy, of course (this is TV).  The whole point of the show is that every week, no matter what the crime presented, the PhD math whiz helps solves the crime using math.  After a season of simply helping his brother through inspiration, he has now become a full-fledged FBI consultant with a seemingly endless set of questions to which he can apply game theory, chaos theory, and other mathematical calculations.

What I love about this show is that it so clearly demonstrates that – no matter how skilled, experienced, or brave the FBI agents – someone with different talents and a new perspective can contribute to successful results. Which brings me to volunteers.

I have come to believe that the key to increased impact – and to resolving the ever-present tension between employees and volunteers – is intentionally recruiting volunteers who, by design, are as unlike the paid work force as possible.

Tradition Tends to Backfire

The most commonly-used model for volunteer involvement is to carve work for volunteers out of the to-do list of paid staff.  In other words, volunteer roles are designed as unpaid staff assistants.  It then follows that new volunteers must have the qualifications to help with employees’ jobs (but not too qualified, so as not to be threatening, of course).  This sets up several uncomfortable dynamics:

  • The paid staff is sharing work for which they are responsible and will be held accountable.  So a volunteer who does not produce what is necessary leaves the paid worker holding the bag.  Conversely, if the volunteer performs exceptionally, will someone wonder why the organization needs the employee?
  • Because of this job-sharing dynamic and risk, paid staff narrow the qualifications they are willing to accept in a new volunteer.  They look more and more for volunteers who are like themselves.  And, if the volunteer resources manager proposes someone less or differently qualified, it’s perceived as insulting to the professionalism of the employees.
  • Labor unions see the volunteer-as-helper model as a way to avoid hiring more needed personnel and so put up obstacles.
  • Volunteers, especially students or career changers, may approach the assignment as an “audition” for what they may hope will eventually become a paying job.  If they’re auditioning, they limit the options that are special to volunteering, such as the freedom to criticize or to say “no.”

So resistance and potential conflict are inherent in the situation of volunteer-as-assistant.   For the right work, the right employee, and the right volunteer, it may be successful.  But why not start from a stronger footing?

Recruit to Find Differences

A much more creative model, and one with great potential for genuine impact on the cause you serve, is to stop looking at the job descriptions of paid staff and instead take two new directions:  put unexpected skills to work for your organization and focus on expanding service to clients/consumers.

A long time ago when I ran the volunteer program at the Philadelphia Family Court, I was approached by the head of the Geography Department at a local college.  She was seeking internship placements for seniors in which they could apply their knowledge of geography – was there anything they could do for the Court?  Well, it was obvious that this was not a talent I had actively been seeking!  But, being a good volunteer program manager, I didn’t blurt out my initial response.  Instead, I talked with her about what, exactly, did she have in mind?  And we ended up accepting two students who used the most recent Census Bureau data to pinpoint where in Philadelphia we’d have the most success in finding male volunteers with different racial and ethnic characteristics, cross-referencing those locations with the residences of  the boys on probation.

Three other real-life examples of engaging unexpected talents are:

  • High school art students infused cultural education into an anti-littering campaign by offering to paint the trash cans of the community with quick art lessons about the work of famous painters.
  • Community-minded accountants offered their skills and knowledge to grassroots advocacy groups needing to understand city budgets, corporate annual reports, and other financial documents.
  • A Texas mini-grant program sought “Math in the Service of the Community” projects – before television got the idea!

One of my favorite books on stimulating creativity is Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head.  One of the exercises he proposes is to envision two people who are complete opposites, or at least totally unlike, having a conversation.  What would a police officer and a clown talk about?  An airline pilot and a chef?  And so on.   By considering points of similarity, whole new worlds of possibilities emerge.  Just like letting geographers talk to probation staff.

All organizations have mission statements addressing causes that are multi-dimensional, and the complexity of our world is only increasing.  So how can a basically homogenous workforce hope to solve all the problems?   Paid staff are generally between the ages of 21 and 65, have similar or compatible educational backgrounds, and tend to represent only a few social and economic strata.  There are no such limits when it comes to volunteers.

For example, by consciously recruiting a volunteer corps that more closely matches an organization’s clients, rather than their employees, a huge knowledge base of first-hand understanding of the issues clients face is brought in house.   Or, by making an effort to recruit volunteers from a long list of different occupations, the organization gains both an interdisciplinary approach to finding solutions and an ever-increasing circle of new contacts for additional resources, fundraising, and more volunteer recruitment.

Consider the following question:  What do our clients/consumers need that would support them in making the best use of our services, but which no one on staff is hired to do? 

Let’s say your organization does family counseling and has a sizeable low-income client base.  Rather than find volunteers who can do counseling, what about finding volunteers capable of guiding clients in banking and budgeting?  Finding better low-cost housing options?  Arranging summer camperships for the kids?  You can see that these sorts of activities do not conflict with the employee’s focus but certainly support the family in different ways that the employee helps to identify.

Here’s another example: running an animal shelter.  Rather than relegating pet-loving volunteers to mucking out cages – or disappointing them because they are not permitted to play with the animals -- recruit people with special skills who can: develop online searches for “adoptive” families or to reunite lost pets with owners; write age-appropriate guides for children and teens about pet care; follow up on placed animals to learn how the shelter could have been more helpful to the new owners; and more.

The benefits of recruiting for differences are enormous:

  • The pool of potential volunteers is limitless because you are no longer looking for only a narrow group of people with similar qualifications.
  • You will find it easier to recruit more highly-skilled people because the types of things you are asking volunteers to do will be more challenging and appealing than simply “helping the staff.”
  • If you design assignments well, employees are not threatened by volunteer engagement and, in fact, truly welcome it because they see how volunteers do so much more than would have been possible before.

If you can’t picture what sorts of “different skills” might work in your setting, try looking around your neighborhood.  What sorts of businesses or facilities are within a few blocks or a mile of where you’re located?  Go and introduce yourself and pose the question:  “How might we collaborate by matching the needs of our organization with the talents of yours?”  If nothing else, you’ll have some fascinating conversations!

What’s your best example of a volunteer with clearly different or unusual qualifications or characteristics?  How did he or she happen to come on board? 

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